For farmers, the field is the real school

One morning in Bugesera district, a group of about 30 farmers are busy ploughing, digging small holes which they fill with fertilizers, and then boiling suckers before planting them. They are directed by one of their colleagues, who makes an adjustment here, shows a technique there.

A farmer/facilitator explains to Minagri PS Ernest Ruzindana why this is, in fact, a sweet potato. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

A farmer/facilitator explains to Minagri PS Ernest Ruzindaza why this is, in fact, a sweet potato. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

Welcome to the Farmer Field School, where farmers learn to improve their trade through, literally, field training by one of their colleagues who has been specifically instructed in improved agricultural techniques.

Leonidas Gakwerere, a resident of Juru sector in Bugesera, is one of the farmers who have been benefiting from the school since late 2009. He says that before he was enrolled, he could not even satisfy all his basic needs, but now he has become a model farmer in growing bananas and is helping his neighbors.

“I used to be a small farmer without even 10,000 francs to my name, but my life has significantly changed since I’ve been benefiting from the field-based training,” Gakwerere says. These days, he can easily save Frw 150,000 per month even after paying the six permanent workers he now employs.

The farmer says that the practical training, which covers the entire spectrum from field preparation over pest management to harvest and marketing, have helped his yields to explode.

“It made a huge difference – before, I produced banana bunches of maybe 15 kilos, but now they weigh up to 120 kilos and sell for 9,000 francs,” Gakwere remarks.

And the money adds up quickly. Gakwerere now owns a motorcycle worth Frw 1.5 million, two exotic cows bought at Frw 700,000 and recently spent Frw 4.5 million on a 3-ha field to expand his banana plantation. And he is planning to buy a pick-up truck.

As much as he enjoys his new-found wealth, Gakwerere wants others to reach the same status, which is why he is assisting over 2690 farmers grouped into 18 schools in his area, teaching them best practices of banana growing.

MASSive bananas. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

MASSive bananas. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

According to Jean Bosco Ndayisaba, another farmer/facilitator, it is all about changing farmers’ mindsets by showing on the ground how you can make a difference. “We expose farmers to both traditional practices and modern ones; they learn by working in the field, and we let them make their choice,” he explains. “After seeing the big difference, they even come finding us for help.”

Given the success achieved by this method, the government recently launched an official program called “Advisory Services and Quality Seeds Program (MASS)” through which farmers will be able to get advice on how to improve their techniques as well as acquire improved seeds to boost their yields.

“It’s of great help to reach our target of becoming a middle income economy in a short time,” says Ernest Ruzindaza, the permanent secretary at the ministry for agriculture and animal resources.

The program aims to establish Field Farmer School (FFS) on all major crops and livestock all around the country. It is also meant to integrate research in the field as well as continuously looking for innovations in agriculture.

Through the school methodology, farmers undergo a season-long training on improved farming practices and acquire knowledge to identify problems and contribute to solutions through “learning by doing,” hence it empowers them to make informed decisions about agricultural production. In addition, they acquire post-harvest, marketing and sales skills to sell their produce at the best price.

The initiative is being coordinated by the ministry of agriculture and animal resources in partnership with the Belgian development agency (BTC). The five-year program, to which BTC contributes €18 million and the Rwandan government €620,000, so far involves about 40,000 farmers and 700 facilitators trained through farmer field schools on priority crops.

And as the case of Leonidas Gakwerere shows, the program is not only good at boosting crop yields, but also turning farmers in top bananas.